As noted by world renowned wine expert, Hugh Johnson, Italy has the world’s richest variety of individual wine styles, distinctive terroirs, and indigenous grape varieties. Ancient Greeks who colonized Italy called it “the land of wine.” Historically, Italy produced wines at the top end noted for vivacity, originality and flair, while the bottom end held many dull and over productive vines.  The enjoyment of most of these top wines was limited to Italians as much of the wine exported was, for the most part, blended by large shippers.  The mention of Italian wine to an American often conjured visions of a bottle of Chianti in a wicker basket that doubled as a candle holder once the wine had been consumed.

About two generations ago, the wine industry in Italy underwent a transformation as experimentation and a commitment to quality began to take place. Along with this transformation was an effort to restructure the entire classification system with tighter restrictions, including maximum permitted yields.  This system ranges from the DOCG at the pinnacle down to the most basic category, Vino da Tavola. While nearly all wine experts agree that this transformation has been to the world’s benefit, deciphering a label can seem daunting.

As daunting as it may seem, with just a few rules of thumb, you can break the code and confidently select a bottle of wine – even if you don’t speak Italian. Here’s what to look for:

  1. Wine name
    2. Wine appellation/grape type
    3. Winery/Bottler name
    4. Region
    5. Denomination ( DOCG, DOC, IGT)
    6. Vintage year
    7. Alcohol content
    8. Importer (if purchased outside Italy)

Cominciamo! (Let’s begin):
1. The wine’s name is usually prominently displayed, as with any wine label, generally in the middle of the label. It may be a fantasia or created name or that of the varietal.

  1. Italy has anywhere from 1,000 to 2,000 indigenous grape varietals. Some of the most common ones – which may or may not appear on a label — are Sangiovese, Barbera, Pinot Grigio, Soave, Dolcetto, Negro Amaro, and Trebbiano. The codified “formula” for Chianti has changed over the years but depending on which zone it is from it is a red wine blend of a minimum of 70% Sangiovese and a small amount of other traditional red varietals such as Canaiolo Nero and/or non-traditional varietals such as Cabernet Sauvignon.
  2. Generally appearing at the bottom of the label may be either the wine producer’s and/or bottler’s name. There are many Italian words for the winery or proprietor. Cascina, fattoria, and tenutamean the winery, “farm” or vineyard name. Vigneto is the word for vineyard, produttoremeans producer, azienda is company and cantina is winery.
  3. Italy has 20 regions but 37 wine regions, and these have their own sub-regions. The most important ones are Tuscany, Piedmont, The Tre Venezie (Friuli-Venezia Giulia, Trentino-Alto Adige and the Veneto), Apulia, Abruzzi, Basilicata, Calabria, Campania, Emilia-Romagna, Liguria, Lombardy, Sardinia and Sicily.
  4. The Italian government’s appellation system has four main designations.
  • “Denominazione d’Origine Controllate e Garantita” (DOCG), numbering over 20 categories, is the most highly regulated.
  • “Denominazione d’Origine Controllata” (DOC), of which there are now over 300 categories, is the most common.
  • “Indicazione Geografica Tipica” (IGT) wines are in the minority of production regulated wines; IGT often refers to non-traditional wines such as Super Tuscans.
  • Vino da tavola” or table wine, often found in supermarkets, while considered the most common and generic category, can contain fine and bargain wines that are not classified IGT.
  1. Annataor vendemmia signifies the vintage year. A minimum of 85% of the wine must be from this vintage. Imbottigliato means bottled and (les common) invecchiato means aged. Following the year may be an additional aging designation such as riserva for reserve, meaning that the wine was aged longer than usual. Superiore indicates that the wine was made according to higher legal production standards. Classico often means that the wine is made in a venerable style. Vecchio means old, secco is dry, and dolce or amabile sweet.
  2. Alcohol or alcoolcontent generally appears on the front label at the bottom or on the side, as with most other wine labels.
  3. Importer. The importer’s name can appear on the front or – more commonly – back label. As you develop your wine vocabulary and preferences you may find that the same importer’s name keeps cropping up on your favorite wine labels.

To be true to the spirit of Italy, the qualities of all of her wine must be seen in the context of the incredibly varied sensuous Italian table.  The true genius of Italy lies in spreading a feast.  And in the great Italian feast, wine plays a role as vital as food!